Rabies has reappeared in Taiwan for the first time in 50 years, leaving the public in a state of panic. However, the disease is not as infectious as SARS or the H5N9 avian influenza virus, which can spread through air.
The virus usually exists in a rabies-affected animal’s saliva, and a person can only be directly infected through wounds inflicted by the sick animal. The virus first grows in muscular and connective tissues and then enters the central nervous system via nerve cells. It finally reproduces in nerve tissues, causing a variety of severe nervous syndromes. Such infection is easily avoided if people do not get bitten by rabies-affected animals.
At the moment, it appears that rabies infections in Taiwan are still limited to wild Formosan ferret-badgers, with the exception of one case of an infected Asian house shrew. However, since “rabies” is called “mad dog disease” — kuangquanbing (狂犬病) — many people are so worried about “mad dogs” around them that they call their fire departments to catch stray dogs and cats in their communities.
As a result, the number of stray dogs and cats at animal shelters has surged rapidly across the nation. In addition, a newspaper has reported that a wild ferret-badger was killed by a pet dog after sneaking into a house in Gukeng Township (古坑鄉), Yunlin County.
As we deal with the rabies outbreak, the following consequences may occur if we blindly remove stray dogs and cats from our living environment:
First, humans may be directly exposed to the threat of wild ferret-badgers and other rabies-affected animals. The living environment of pet or stray dogs and cats is somewhere between that of humans and that of wild animals, including ferret-badgers. Since dogs and cats are territorial, and they also have more acute senses than humans do, they are able to detect and attack affected ferret-badgers that behave abnormally at an early stage in the disease.
Next, during the process of hunting down stray dogs and cats, we may force them to stay away from urban areas. As they get closer to rural areas or even forests, the chance that they will be infected with rabies will increase drastically. Then they will become harmful to humans.
In movies, when two people’s lives are under threat, one of them will attempt to eliminate the other in order to survive. We always label the former as the “bad guy.” However, problems will arise if we do not act like the bad guy in this situation.
The problem of stray dogs and cats has existed for many years in this country. In an effort to reduce the number of stray animals in recent years, animal protection groups have worked hard to promote TNR — trap-neuter-return — in the hope that the government will substitute sterilization in place of its elimination policy.
The goal in the fight against rabies for some of the government’s animal disease prevention units is to contain the disease in the mountain areas where it has been reported. Patrols make it a priority to vaccinate pet dogs and cats in such areas. This is a move in the right direction.
However, if they also can include TNR in their prevention work, the large number of sterilized dogs and cats that are administered with the vaccine are likely to form a defensive line between humans and infected animals. These policies together would be able to keep wild animals away from humans, and reduce the risk of people becoming infected.